Sometimes fashion weeks unfairly absorb all the attention of the media and that's a shame because there may be interesting events taking place in other locations outside the main fashion circuit that would be equally (if not more...) interesting than runway shows.
While the various fashion weeks were taking place in September there was for example a unique event on entitled "Homo Faber" and organised at the Fondazione Cini on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
Launched by the Geneva-based non-profit organisation Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, the Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d'Arte, the Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and Milan's La Triennale, the event consisted in a showcase of European craftsmanship and artisans working in different fields.
One of the highlights of the showcase was the "Fashion Inside and Out" exhibition that tried to re-shift the attention from celebrity fashion designers to the craftspeople working with them, showing how traditional techniques can genuinely inspire contemporary creative minds.
For the occasion curator and exhibition-maker Judith Clark was given the opportunity to work in a unique place, the disused Gandini indoor swimming pool.
Designed in the '60s and located on the Island of San Giorgio, the swimming pool was abandoned for years. Luckily in 2009 a regeneration project transformed it into an exhibition space, part of the Fondazione Cini.
Since then the former swimming pool has hosted photographic shows and installations that look particularly intriguing when they are developed inside the actual pool.
In the case of "Fashion Inside and Out" Clark installed a series of platforms inside the pool that allowed visitors to descend into the space and walk among the designs on display. Other mannequins stood around the edges of the pool, as if they were ready to dive in.
The metaphor was easy to grasp: the main idea was indeed inviting visitors to "dive" into the craftsmanship on display and take their time to discover the secrets behind a series of iconic designs.
The point of the exhibition was looking at how human hands can transform natural materials via different techniques such as embroidering, embossing, pleating and weaving.
There was a special focus on pieces made with natural materials such as the hand-embroidered jacket and skirt appliqued with wooden beads from Chanel's Haute Couture S/S 16 Collection; the raffia cape embellished with croissants and the bike jacket embroidered with natural raffia and wheat weaving (made by a woman based in the South of France) from Schiaparelli's Haute Couture S/S 2016 Collection; the iconically simple yet striking 1972 Capucci dress decorated with pebbles or the hemp and raffia pea-coats, tops and skirts from Dolce and Gabbana's S/S 2013 collection.
Traditional designs made an appearance via a petticoat bastiande costume from Provence dating from 1835 and borrowed from the Musée provencal du costume et du bijou.
Artistic collaborations also found space in the display: Natacha Ramsay-Levi dress for Chloé's S/S 18 collection featured for example digitally-printed illustrations by artist Rithika Merchant.
But apart from art there were also other disciplines and inspirations tackled via the use of fabrics and via surface elaborations: Chalayan's dress from his "Land Without Collection" (S/S 1997) moved from the portrayal of women as the scapegoat in German fairytales, as well as 15th century texts on witchcraft. While the designs from "Geotropics" reflected upon the role of natural topographical features such as mountains and rivers and turned the body into a micro-geography.
An ensemble by Phoebe English (from her S/S 12 collection) made up of a smocked raglan box top and smocked midi skirt with thread detail also tackled the issue of surface elaboration and was matched with a replica outfit in a miniature size for a marionette that seemed to call to mind Vionnet's modus operandi of constructing garments on dolls (English actually created the piece for a show at the V&A). The puppet sized garment was a way to invite visitors to consider that technical and mathematical demands remain the same even when dimensions are altered.
While there were also more recent designs such as Galliano's for Maison Margiela Artisanal A/W 2017 collection, in particular a deconstructed silk organza trench, highlights of the garments section were the designs by the late Azzedine Alaïa, including a python motif wool knit dress (A/W 2013-14), that represented a true challenge as recreating the python skin effect in knit was no mean feat a corded knit that was thick in some places and thin in others had to be created, and a natural hemp bra and skirt with shell details (S/S 1990) collection.
Accessories included a classic chatelaine from the late 1800s juxtaposed to Naomi Filmer's wearable and futuristic jewellery sculptures for Alexander McQueen, such as her hand-blown glass with silver plated copper neck piece (made employing a variety of techniques, from electro-forming, blowing glass, wax carving and electro-plating) and her Orchid Epaulette shoulder piece for Anne Valerie Hash's Couture.
Apart from Dai Rees' hand tooled leather embossed headpieces (the designer manufactures all of the pieces himself, always bearing in mind appreciation and respect for regional heritage and rural artisanship), there was also a full ensemble skirt, wrap and neck-piece (Autumn/Winter 2000), their tanned brown shades going well with a rather peculiar accessory, the "Bed Side Bag" designed by Angelo Pennella as part of his "Betty built her world" (2017) collection and made by woodworker Giuselle Morisano using solid walnut wood.
Milliner Stephen Jones contributed to the event with a few of his headdresses from his S/S 18 collection and, commissioned by Judith Clark, created a swimmer headwear piece made with hand moulded plastic and mounted on a cotton and leather balaclava.
The designs and the accessories were displayed on bespoke and handmade mannequins by Bonaveri (the ones used for the two swimmers are very special mannequins that can replicate all sorts of human poses), but one of the best things about the event were the straw wigs by hair stylist and designer Angelo Seminara (the Creative Director behind an understated but excellent brand of hair products Davines).
All the wigs were made employing natural colours and materials such as wicker or straw and, though they looked simple, the process of making them was incredibly time consuming. In some cases Seminara took days as each hair was placed individually using two different sized fibres to create a bit of a three-dimensional effect and create geometric shapes.
Some of the inspirations Seminara used were clearly architectural or showed connections with specific movements in the decorative arts such as Art Deco.
Among the best wigs there was the one he created to match the Alaïa bra and skirt that was characterised by a futuristic, avant-garde design combining rings and hair made in wicker with the back going up into a V-shape creating an A-line bob haircut.
Looking at the designs on display you could easily understand that, despite all the talks about a digital or mechanised world, there are things human beings can do better than machines (and, no, algorithms can't design clothes), but the event also made you think about artisans in our times.
As older generations of craftspeople are retiring they aren't being replaced by younger ones as there aren't enough jobs for them. "Fashion Inside and Out" was a way to stop and ponder about slow craftsmanship and wonder if it can exist in a world set on super fast rhythms (the curator put emphasis in the exhibition notes on the hours that took to make each of the pieces on display).
As a whole "Homo Faber" had good intents, but the final aim - building a directory of master craftspeople - is incredibly difficult if not utopian in a world that is driving traditional shops and businesses towards extinctions (and those who lived the sad experience of seeing a business go because they were directly involved in it or their friends or family members used to own or work for such places, know how heart shattering closing down can be...).
Maybe a good idea for the next "Homo Faber" would be to tour with groups of artisans those universities offering design courses as this may help students focusing more on learning a variety of skills and techniques.
The most disappointing thing about the impeccable "Fashion Inside and Out" was not just the fact that it was badly timed with fashion month, but that it was open only for two weeks in September. Surely promoting genuine fine craftsmanship deserves a longer celebration.